In 1983, four years after the signing of the peace treaty between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, I became acquainted with a couple who lived in my Jerusalem apartment complex.
The husband was a teacher in the local elementary school; the wife worked for the Israel Electric Corporation.
Within minutes of our first encounter, it became apparent that they did not share my worldview. This was not a novel experience. On the contrary, I had come to expect secular Israelis, especially those with university degrees, to be somewhere on the Left.
Still, the couple in question turned out to be different from the others with whom I argued regularly about politics and economics, until more urgent issues, such as whether our babies had slept through the night, reminded us why we were friends in the first place.
Unlike the trendy Labor Party liberals all over the neighborhood, who were buying up run-down Arab houses and renovating them with a vengeance (made possible through much hard-earned cash from their parents), this man and woman were bona fide, card-carrying communists. And their disdain for anyone less ideologically “pure” bordered on hatred.
It was like the split in the 1950s between kibbutz members who remained loyal to Joseph Stalin and those who in their awakening to the evils of the Soviet Union rejected him.
My neighbors, it seemed, were reenacting a schism that barely existed any more. I found it fascinating to catch a glimpse of this bygone aspect of Israeli society with which I had been unfamiliar.
Even more interesting were our debates, which had a peculiar flavor: so opposite were our positions that they almost converged. The Israel- Egypt treaty brought this weird phenomenon to the fore.
The mainstream attitude in Israel towards Sadat at the time had been one of awe at his great bravery in the face of internecine opposition on the one hand, and admiration for his global realpolitik on the other.
To say anything else about him was practically blasphemy. And whenever I expressed doubts about his motives or questioned how genuine a peace it would be – since all the Egyptian leader had to do was say, “No more war,” and Begin handed him the entire Sinai Peninsula, while giving the Palestinians “autonomy” – I was dismissed as a right-wing fanatic.
My communist friends, however, were equally skeptical.
“Sadat only initiated this move in order to leave the Soviet access and ally himself with the United States,” they said. I agreed wholeheartedly, explaining that this constituted the one real ray of light I saw in the deal.
They laughed, happy I was acknowledging the veracity of their analysis, yet making fun of my siding with the US over the USSR.
I, too, was amused. I had discovered that it is far easier to spar over opinions when the facts are not in dispute.
Nor were these communists pacifists, as were so many of their liberal counterparts.
They even defended the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, based on their belief that some things are worth fighting for. On the latter point we did not diverge.
This form of polarization came to mind when reading Peter Beinart’s piece in Haaretz on Thursday, titled: “For the American right, Israel embodies the values that Obama’s US no longer does.”
Using the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition last weekend as a peg to list all the reasons why American conservatives (i.e. Christians) care so much about Israel that it was the focus of the Republican candidates’ addresses to the audience, Beinart starts off by dismissing the “exaggerated” emphasis liberals put on theology as an explanation.
“For one thing, more secular conservatives are almost as pro-Israel as their fervently religious counterparts,” he writes.
Here is how Beinart sees it: “Since the United States became a world power, conservatives have tended to define America’s mission as leading the West against some global, existential, civilizational foe. First it was the Nazis; then it was the communists; now it is ‘radical Islam.’ The ‘West’ is an amorphous, fluid concept: part geographic, part ideological, part cultural, part religious, at times even racial.
But however they define it, American conservatives have long felt a special affinity for those Western outposts that define the frontier between them and us...Today’s conservatives love Israel for a similar reason. In this era, they believe, the West’s great enemy is ‘radical Islam.’ And the West’s great outpost, on the frontlines against Islamic terror, is Israel. It’s modern; it’s democratic; it’s pro-American.
And it’s under attack from the same forces that want to destroy the United States.”
So far, so good. Excellent, in fact.
Can it be that I am in agreement with Beinart about something? Anything? He goes on: “But there’s a twist. It’s not just that Israel represents the West. It’s that Israel represents the West at a time when many conservatives feel the United States no longer does.”
“Conservatives love Israel for the same reason anti-Zionists hate it,” he concludes. “Think about the words Israel’s harshest foes use to describe it: colonial, imperial, settler, apartheid.
What they all convey is that Israel is a foreign creation, imposed by Europeans, and sustained by the United States, at the native population’s expense. For the American right, being a Western outpost in the Middle East makes Israel heroic. For the anti-Zionist left, it makes Israel illegitimate.
That’s why Israel has become so important to the American right. For many conservatives today, Western civilization isn’t only embattled in the Middle East. It’s also embattled inside the United States. Thus, the struggle over how America treats Israel is also a struggle over how America defines itself.”
I could have written those very words myself. But, whereas its author is bemoaning them, I cheer at their justice. Communists, like my former neighbors, and Beinart really do make for strange bedfellows.Ruthie Blum is the web editor of Voice of Israel talk radio (voiceofisrael.com) and a columnist for Israel Hayom.
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